"It smells like black jelly beans!" exclaimed 11-year-old Paige McIntosh as she held up the bottle of Five Spice Powder to her nose. She passed the bottle back to her Filipino teacher, beaming with the triumph of having made such an apt comparison.
It was Chinese day at the Culinary School of Washington's Kids' Kitchen Camp. The instructor, Rochelle Mangapit, a local chef and student at the school, passed the jar of the anise-smelling spice to her young cooks as she prepared the sauce for her dish of stir-fried chicken and walnuts. "Do you like the smell?" she asked them. "Will someone measure one teaspoon of it into this bowl for me?"
The seven girls and three boys stood attentively around the cutting table in the school's institutional-size kitchen as Mangapit chopped the vegetables for the fried wonton and egg rolls they would be making. Mangapit did most of the chopping herself, allowing only a few children to handle knives, but letting her students measure ingredients and mix them in large bowls. Next they would prepare the shrimp for the egg roll filling.
The Culinary School's children's program, now in its third year, likes to feature "different" foods from various countries. "The children are then exposed to a new cuisine and a new culture," explains Mary Ann Kibarian, president of the school. "Kids usually only eat the things they like, like hot dogs. Here they try all sorts of 'strange' things and find out they like them. Their parents come here and are shocked to see them eating different foods."
Mangapit opened the packages of shrimp and passed them out to her students. The kids were a bit squeamish at first about peeling shrimp, but quickly picked up the technique and were even removing the veins with the tips of paring knives. "Do we leave the tails on?" one boy asked as he placed his shrimp in a bowl of ice cubes.
The children at kitchen camp all claim they love to eat but they give different reasons for wanting to learn to cook. Some are old pros, like 13-year-old Lorraine Griffin from Suitland, who often makes her family the fish-and-chips dinner she learned in last year's program. Now she wants to learn more. Others say they never use recipes and just know how to cook easy things like macaroni and cheese. Francisco Garcia, 13, figures it's about time he started helping his mother.
"I've fixed some rice and some grits and orange juice before," nine-year-old Malaika Sims says proudly. "I already know how to make green beans, but I want to learn how to make spinach."
Nihak Khdair, 13, says his mother thought it would be a good idea for him to join the program. "All I know how to make is eggs," he explains. "My mom says, 'Suppose your wife leaves you when you grow up? How are you gonna cook?' She brought me here and she told me to take down notes."
"People are interested in cooking today and I think it's infectious," says Kibarian. "The kids are getting this same feeling from their parents. Cooking isn't drudgery anymore. It's fun and exciting."
The meat wonton filling was now ready. Each child took a spoonful of filling from the large bowl and placed it in the center of a small square wonton wrapper. Mangapit showed the children how to moisten the edges of the wrapper with water to make them stick together. As the pile of wonton on the plate in the middle of the table grew, one boy remarked, "They're all different shapes and sizes!" Another girl squealed, "Oh, they're cute little things."
Now the shrimp egg roll filling had to be cooked. The children watched Mangapit at the stove as she demonstrated the proper way to stir the mixture in a wok. Then they moved back to the cutting table.
Mangapit was not as lenient with her charges when it came to odd-shaped egg rolls. "Put the filling at the corner closest to you, then fold them as straight as possible," she stressed. She reached around the table and turned a few of the wrappers in the right direction and made a couple of her students fold theirs over again.
The children saw it was important to fold the larger egg roll wrappers to a uniform size. "I don't like to eat egg rolls and have the stuff come out," said Perri Reed, 12, crinkling up her nose. "It gets all gooey."
"This one's gonna be perfect!" said Francisco as he tried folding his second egg roll. A little later he looked up from his work and said, "I think I did something wrong. It turned out sort of -- lumpy."
As Mangapit demonstrated once more the art of folding the thin, square wrappers, Nihad whispered to his neighbor, "How'd you like to make a pizza out of this dough?"
The young chefs finally get to eat their lunch creations and then plan when they are going to try out their new Chinese culinary talents on their families. "I'm sure our grocery bills are going to go up now," said Linda Reed as she picked up her daughter after class.
It's not going to be macaroni and cheese for these kids anymore. As Nihad leaves with his recipe sheets he remarks, "Probably the first thing I do when I get home is tell my mom to go to the Safeway and get stuff so I can make this for dinner." WHAT'S COOKING The last session in the 9- to 12-year-olds' program, French cooking, will be Friday, July 30 from 9 to 1. There are a limited number of openings left. The second program, for 13- to 17-year-olds, covers Italian foods, baking and soup-making. It runs three Fridays from 9 to 1 beginning August 6. Cost is $64 for the three sessions; $22 for one session. Another set of children's cooking classes for both age groups will be held on Saturdays beginning this fall. Contact the Culinary School of Washington, Ltd., 4470 MacArthur Boulevard, Washington 20007. Phone: 333-0600 or 342-1856.